Sandy Martin introduced our speakers—Mónica Lebrón, UT’s deputy AD of Championship Resources, and Kat Jones, director of Name, Image, and Likeness. Both joined UT in 2021. Monica came from Tulane and Kat from the University of Central Florida. The title of their talk was “Everything You Wanted to Know About NIL But Were Afraid to Ask.”
Kat Jones spoke first, noting the NIL is a hot-button topic in college sports. “I encourage everyone to stop calling it the Wild Wild West: It’s just the West. This is now the college athletic world. NIL stands for name, image, and likeness, and it allows college athletes to do an endorsement for products, services, or companies. Several local companies like the VOL Shop and Alumni Hall have benefited from their association with UT athletes. So, let’s start by answering the question, How did we get here?”
NIL is concerned with the Right to Publicity, which was prohibited by NCAA by-laws until July 1, 2021.
An antitrust case, NCAA v. Alston, took a stab at the antitrust issues of the NCAA. That eventually led to an NCAA Interim Policy. “There are rules,” said Jones.
- There can be no cash handout: there must be an exchange of services.
- NIL can’t be used as a recruiting inducement.
- There is no “pay for play; that is, NIL payments can’t be tied to athletic performance.
“Obviously, good performance leads to a higher market value,” said Jones. “As in the case of Alontae Taylor and Moonshine Mountain Cookies, which led to everyone getting a free cookie when he made an interception.”
Tennessee State law mirrors the NCAA policy, but there are 28 different state laws.
“My job is to help coaches, athletes, and staff with their questions. I used to spend all my time telling them they couldn’t do certain things. No I spend all my time encouraging them to do these things. And you guys [meaning Rotarians in the business community] are the audience that makes it all work. Part of my job is to determine how we use NIL in our community.”
One reason she came to UT from UCF was that “I saw that UT had a vision for education in NIL. UT had invested in resources to educate its athletes. For example, there is an NIL course taught in the Haslam College of Business that touches on how they can develop their brand, what are their core values, making sure they know how to files taxes, how they budget their earnings, how to take good photos for social media. Overall, how do you make a good product that people want to get behind?”
Jones noted that it’s easy to forget that most of the athletes are between 18 and 22, so still inexperienced in these business details.
Jones noted that UT’s brands—the Power T; the Lady Vol brand; the Vol Nation; “Everywhere you look, UT”—help the NIL efforts. Said Jones, “We’ve had great success in just 21 months—800 deals across all sports, with an even split between men and women. And we are looking to expand at the local and national level. You might ask, ‘How do I get involved?’ The answer: hire a student-athlete and let me help. It’s hard to express the power for our athletes of seeing their names on shirts.”
Mónica Lebrón spoke next. She began by remembering an evening in 2004 when she was working for the University of Florida and came up to Neyland for the big game. There was the last-second field goal and the goalposts came down. “I said to myself, ‘This place is special.’”
Lebrón gave a little of her bio—the came from San Jose, California, played softball at Yale and has worked in college athletics for 25 years at Cal, Ole Miss, Florida, and Tulane. “In this industry, you look to the best,” she said. “In 2004, you looked to Tennessee. Somewhere along the way, Tennessee had lost that. I’ve known Danny White for 20 years. When UT hired Danny White, I said to myself, ‘Tennessee is back.’” She had been trying to get his old AD job at UCF, and enlisted his help. He said, “If you don’t get it, do you want to come here?” She didn’t get it, and in a matter of days she joined White’s athletic department. That was February 11, 2021.
“In two years we’ve been trying to get UT back to that ‘best.’ What does that mean? It means that every single unit is operating at the optimum level. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that? We’re trying to be the best in everything we do. “Give my all,” isn’t just a slogan. What can you say about selling 70,000 season tickets at this time of the year? We have just 221 left to sell. But we all need to be in it together to get back to where we were in 2004.”
In Q&A the question came up about how NIL deals affect the locker room cohesiveness. “The dynamics are always in play, like playing time,” answered Jones. “Team deals help. You have to keep aware of how your actions are affecting the team.”
Questions also came up about the educational efforts being given to athletes: “Yes, one thing we say immediately is, ‘Do not sign something without fully understanding what you are signing.’ We also talk to parents to make sure they understand.” It was noted that alcohol, tobacco, and gambling products are not allowed in NIL, but firearms—say, hunting rifles, are not proscribed.
“We come at it from an educational standpoint. Financial literacy is required by state law.” Time management is something they work with athletes on. The intricacies of NIL they tend to ease young athletes into.”
Jones ended by noting that she can be involved in making connections between businesses and athletes. ”If someone wants to make contact, I can assist with that.”